Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 20, 2017

No deliberation needed to declare ‘Marshall’ a winner

It’s Thurgood Marshall to the rescue in “Marshall,” an exhilarating biopic about the early days of the legal legend’s career. Batman and Superman can step aside. “Marshall” offers a true superhero origin story.

Like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012), “Marshall” focuses on a specific period in the life of its subject. Instead of producing a sprawling epic about Marshall’s involvement in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, or his ascent to the U.S. Supreme Court, the filmmakers went back to 1941, when Marshall was a young lawyer hungry for justice.

During that time, Marshall was the only attorney working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His mission was tricky, too, given the times in which he was living: defending African-Americans wrongfully accused of crimes because of the color of their skin.

“Marshall” zooms in even closer to examine Marshall’s efforts to defend one particular man, accused rapist Joseph Spell. One of the many remarkable things about the movie is the way in which it not only paints a glowing portrait of Marshall as a champion of truth, it also serves as a gripping courtroom drama.

Movies about real-life events are notorious for playing hard and fast with the facts to pump up the drama. While “Marshall” does contain embellishments (according to the Bustle.com article, “How accurate is ‘Marshall?’”), the film accurately presents the facts of the case and the people involved.

The latter includes Eleanor Strubing, a Connecticut socialite who’s married to a wealthy, and routinely absent, advertising executive. After she’s found dripping wet, battered and hysterical on a New York highway one night, Strubing accuses Spell, her family’s driver, of raping and then attempting to kill her.

It seems like a cut-and-dried case. But like any good courtroom potboiler, inconsistencies begin to rise out of the cracks in Strubing’s story. “Marshall” suggests its protagonist (who all but says “The game is afoot!” as he begins to investigate the case) is responsible for pressing on these points after Spell had already been convicted in the court of public opinion.

Another critical figure in the case was Sam Friedman, an insurance lawyer who’s roped into joining Marshall in defending Spell. Friedman initially objects to taking part in the case because he believes it will ruin his career. But he comes around. Good thing, too, because the judge on the case forbids Marshall from speaking in the courtroom. The film is as much about Friedman’s triumphs as it is Marshall’s.

Author John Grisham has yet to construct a courtroom drama that unfolds more elegantly than the one portrayed in “Marshall.” There are dramatic presentations before the jury, heartbreaking setbacks, jaw-dropping reversals and powerful closing arguments.

There are also solid performances across the board. I read a review of “Marshall” in which the author criticized the casting choices. I was dumbfounded, as I cannot imagine there are actors better suited to the roles.

Chadwick Boseman, who can say more with his face than most actors do with words (I challenge you to find a more penetrating set of eyes in movies today), is captivating. As Friedman, Josh Gad delivers the best performance in the film. Boseman spends most of the movie set on intense, whereas Gad effectively portrays a broader range of emotions, including vulnerability.

Everything in “Marshall” clicks as well as the performances. Director Reginald Hudlin’s work is subtle, but it’s there, in scene after solid scene and in the small things casual viewers might miss. I love the shadows of the windows blinds on the face of prosecutor Lorin Willis as he’s delivering his closing argument. To me, they suggest the duplicity and darkness of his carefully hewn words.

I also liked Hudlin’s frequent use of deep focus to not just emphasize the placement of one character in relation to another but to reinforce the narrative as well, especially as one character triumphs over another.

The script is just as polished as the direction. Too polished for real life, I think, but beautifully polished for a movie that’s meant to stir emotions as well as historical and cultural awareness. I love the accuracy of lines like this:

“You just sweep through town stirring up all kinds of ugliness. My life is on the line here!” (Friedman to Marshall)

And this:

“The only way to get through a bigot’s door is to break it down.” (Marshall)

I do have one objection. While Boseman is terrific as Marshall, his character walks a tightrope between passionate and arrogant. Perhaps the filmmakers were so eager to portray Marshall as a fighter that they let him bulldoze over other people’s legitimate concerns – consequences be damned.

Later in life, Marshall did describe his legal philosophy as, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up,” so perhaps the filmmakers were correct in portraying him this way. However, Marshall was surely more rounded than this slightly one-dimensional approach suggests.

In the end, though, “Marshall” will be remembered for its thrilling case, outstanding performances and sheer entertainment value. Rare is the Oscar contender that’s this much fun.

Four stars out of four